President Trump’s administration choices have nearly all been made, and many of them have something in common that’s causing concern for Republicans and Democrats alike—they’re pro-surveillance hawks. That fact is bringing together some people on both the left and the right in an interesting quasi-partnership on issues like privacy and domestic collection of metadata, location and more, but not for the reasons you might think.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), whose confirmation hearings for the position of Attorney General have recently taken place in the Senate, sided with the government in the 2015 feud between Apple and the FBI over phone encryption. Sessions is on record with the position that accessing phones is “critical” to law enforcement agencies such as the FBI. This sets the tech community on edge; an AG who is pro-surveillance could continue or even expand practices like parallel construction, a practice that is somewhat like a student reverse-engineering an algebra problem to show their work when they already had the answer. Federal agencies use surveillance programs unconstitutionally and sometimes illegally to collect evidence, while simultaneously working to “construct” a plausible and legal way they can explain having the information. The Tenth Amendment Center calls this process “wildly unconstitutional and dangerous.”
To lead the CIA, Trump chose Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), someone who is so pro-surveillance that he introduced legislation to restore domestic collection powers that were taken from the NSA in the wake of the Snowden leaks. FreedomWorks called the bill “Big Brother on steroids,” and with both sides of the aisle fighting it, Pompeo’s ideas never got out of committee. In 2016, Pompeo co-authored an opinion piece with David B. Rivkin Jr. in which he called for the reinstatement of bulk metadata collection. His goal is to create and build a “comprehensive, searchable database” of any American who regularly uses the internet.
The Director of National Intelligence position is to be filled by former Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana. Coats wrote an op-ed in 2013 immediately following the Snowden leaks titled “To My Congressional Colleagues: Stop the NSA Grandstanding,” in which he defended the surveillance state and outlined his support for some of the very programs that were later found unconstitutional and limited or ended entirely. Coats also voted against the 2015 USA Freedom Act, legislation that attempted to constrain the domestic surveillance programs.
One former NSA official told NBC News that he believes Trump “is going to be a guy who is probably going to mandate back doors” into software and devices, a move that has long been advocated against by many conservatives and security researchers for both constitutional and technical reasons.
These choices and others are causing a significant amount of worry for both conservatives and liberals.
Many conservatives feel that the existence of the surveillance state is something that encroaches upon and even violates the Constitutional rights of Americans. Conservative groups like the Tenth Amendment Center, who maintains a section of its website devoted to domestic surveillance, are not alone.
On the left, the handwringing has nothing to do with privacy rights for conservatives, or constitutionalists, or ‘right-wing conspiracy nuts,’ but Muslims and the LGBTQ community. The Intercept went so far as to publish a guide for “Surveillance Self-Defense Against the Trump Administration.” Liberals openly worry that Trump will usher in a horrifying world where gays are put in concentration camps and Muslims will be treated like Jews in 1940 Germany. While the hyperbole is somewhat tiring (and they certainly don’t care about federal overreach in surveillance against those they disagree with), an expanded surveillance state is something worth questioning.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that on the issue of surveillance, the left and right were oddly united in their opposition, with “steadfast conservatives” and “solid liberals” making up the largest demographic of disapproval.
The topic of surveillance, whether it keeps Americans more safe, and whether it’s constitutional is an issue that has been hotly contested and debated, even among members of the same political party.
Senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have stood in opposition to the wide-spread domestic collection programs as unconstitutional and even immoral, while other lawmakers—like Rep. Mike Pompeo—have seen the programs as necessary for the safety of all Americans. Philip Jenkins wrote in 2015 that “Trump is right [about surveillance in mosques]. The only thing he is doing wrong is talking about it publicly.”
As Trump prepares to take office, his position on surveillance of Americans citizens’ remains to be seen. If his administration picks are any indication, however, Americans could see some changes in their personal privacy—regardless of their politics.